Charlotte 49ers inside linebacker Nick Cook says he often thinks about the kind of legacy he will leave once his playing days are done.
“I’m a big believer on ‘What are you going to do each day to be remembered?’ ” said Cook, Charlotte’s leading tackler. “Your life’s like a vapor. It goes by really quick, and every day you want to chase something special.”
That’s what led the Wichita, Kan., native to go from not being recruited in high school to one of the nation’s better junior college players, and to make an impact with one of college football’s newest programs.
“I always knew what I could do,” said Cook, who will join teammates for their nonconference game at Temple on Saturday. “I knew I was blessed with the ability to play football. I knew what I could do, but I’m blessed to have the opportunity to play ball here.”
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Switching to linebacker
How Cook came to play at Charlotte begins five years ago, when he was a rising senior at Wichita’s Kapuan Mt. Carmel High School.
Cook was a defensive back and wide receiver with the Crusaders until his senior year, when he volunteered to switch to middle linebacker.
“It was the fall camp going into my senior year,” Cook said. “We were doing one of the old Oklahoma drills, a tackling drill, and one of the linebackers didn’t get out there. So I just stepped in and made a play, did it again and made another play. I talked to my coach about it, because we were down at that position.”
Cook was a natural at linebacker, said Kapuan Mt. Carmel coach Dan Adelhardt, but it didn’t lead to interest from college recruiters.
“Nick wasn’t a 4.6 (second), 235-pound linebacker,” Adelhardt said. “He worked his tail off, and incrementally put on the stuff. But (college recruiters) want people right now that are going to fill that spot.
“At that point, he might’ve weighed 190-195 (pounds) when he was a senior. He wasn’t fitting the eyeball test of what a lot of them are looking for.”
Opts for junior college
With NCAA football programs – even Division II or Division III schools – not making offers, Cook opted for junior college.
He spent the next two years at Butler (Kan.) Community College, a six-time National Junior College Athletic Association national champion.
Over that span, the Grizzlies won a conference championship and played for the NJCAA national title both seasons. But it was more than just athletic skills that made Cook one of Butler’s top defensive players.
“It’s the person Nick Cook that makes the player Nick Cook such an explosive player,” said Grizzlies coach Tim Schaffner. “He has all the intangibles – great leadership skills, he’s accountable, he understands right from wrong, he understands the meaning of the words ‘commitment’ and ‘hard work.’ ”
Cook also knew Butler’s players regularly moved on to bigger and better things – many have played at Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision programs, and from there to the NFL.
“They’re one of the better (junior colleges) in the country,” Cook said. “They’re going to have coaches coming through just to look at athletes.”
On 49ers’ radar
That’s how Cook wound up on Charlotte’s recruiting radar.
It also helped that 49ers coach Brad Lambert was familiar with Butler’s and the other Kansas community college football programs’ reputation.
“We found (Cook) and watched him practice,” said Lambert, who was born in Hoxie, Kan., and played college ball at Kansas State. “He was a really, really good player, a high school guy who got overlooked, went to Butler and played extremely well.”
Cook was one of two Butler players to sign with Charlotte for the 2014 season, the other being defensive back Branden Dozier.
Cook said he chose the 49ers over Northern Iowa mainly because of Lambert.
“He’s from western Kansas, just like my father (Mike),” Nick Cook said. “They’re real similar guys. Plus, getting the experience of being out on the East Coast, and at the same time getting to live my dream of playing D-1 football.”
However, Cook’s introduction to the top level of college football wasn’t a good one.
Getting the start at inside linebacker in the 49ers’ 2014 opener against Campbell, he suffered a left ankle injury that required season-ending surgery.
“It helped me to step back and look at the game differently, and to appreciate it more,” Cook said of the injury. “I took more time watching film, doing rehab and spent more time in the weight room, but I was also able to coach the guys who were younger than me. That also helped me with my football IQ.
“I always say getting hurt was a blessing in disguise.”
Returning to the lineup in 2015, Cook led Charlotte’s defense in tackles with 73, despite missing two games with an injury.
Entering Saturday’s game against Temple, Cook leads the 49ers’ defense with 31tackles and has set a school record for reaching 100 career tackles in the shortest time (14 games).
At his average (10.3), he could end his career as Charlotte’s career leader in tackles. His 106 total tackles are eighth all-time and second among active players behind senior defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi’s 162.
“It’s crazy, being my senior year. It feels like I just got here,” Cook said. “Three years ago, I just showed up in the spring and was meeting everybody and learning their names, and now we’re about to start the fourth game of the (2016) season.
“It’s crazy to think that we’re only in our fourth season. To see where this place is going to go, it’s cool to watch.”